Revolution! Makavejev, Kusturica, and Yugoslavian History

Contributor Jim Breslin explores the social and political changes of Yugoslavian history and their effect on directors Dusan Makavejev and Emir Kusturica, particularly through their films ‘WR: Mysteries of the Organism’ and ‘Underground.’ 

In their book A Short History of the Movies, Gerald Mast and Bruce Kawin state that “Of all the countries known collectively as the Balkan States, Greece and the former Yugoslavia have had the greatest impact on world cinema.” While most of us do not often think of Yugoslavian cinema as an area of mass appeal or influence, when we look at the films of innovative directors like Dusan Makavejev and Emir Kusturica, it is easy to see why Yugoslavia has had such a massive impact. From its beginnings as a country in 1918 after World War I until its official breakup in 1992, Yugoslavia rarely had a moment of peace, instead facing political revolutions and war. In the aftermath of World War II, Yugoslavia formed a communist government, named the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia and later the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, led by Josip Broz Tito and it was during this period that Makavejev filmed the majority of his work. This also acts as the setting of Kusturica’s Palme d’Or-winning 1995 film Underground. We can clearly see that Yuoslavia’s years under communist control, as well as the rest of its sprawling history had a substantial impact on both filmmakers, particularly when we examine Underground as well as Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971).

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Kusturica’s film presents to us most of Yugoslavian history, spanning from the years leading up to WWII until the country’s eventual breakup during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Plot-wise, the film deals with two communist revolutionaries, Marko and Blacky, who are forced underground during WWII. However after the war ends, Marko becomes a high-ranking official in Tito’s new government while Blacky and many of his friends and family are still living underground.  Believing the war is waging above, Blacky continues to make weapons for a profiting Marko.

On the other hand, WR deals with the sexual revolution in both Yugoslavia and America in a hybrid of narrative and documentary filmmaking. Throughout the film, Makavejev examines various real-life subjects and storylines dealing with sexual liberation including the teachings and findings of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, the life of a transgender woman living in New York City, and a narrative about a sexually radical woman in Yugoslavia. Through these films, both Makavejev and Kusturica are able to present Yugoslavia’s revolutionary changes in the later part of the 20th Century through their themes, plotlines, and filmmaking techniques.

Organism 3Much of Makavejev’s WR runs parallel to the struggles Yugoslavia faced in 1971, particularly the ideas of changing times and the struggle for identification. Obviously, this was filmed during the Cold War, a time in which many on both sides began to question what it meant to be a communist/what it meant to be a capitalist. As film critic Nina Power states in her article Blood and Sugar: The Films of Dusan Makavejev, “WR can, in this sense, be read as a warning during a cultural cold war in which the opponents vie for hegemony over human passions. But it is also a film about the inherent unfairness or injustice of desire, regardless of political systems.” As we have already touched on, the main subject of this “cultural cold war” is the way in which sexuality is handled in our modern societies, including communism.

For example there is a very interesting scene in WR in which Milena, our female protagonist in the Yugoslavian narrative, gives a rousing speech, dressed in both military gear and lingerie, to a large number of men below her. She shouts to them, “Socialism must not exclude human pleasure from its program. The October Revolution was ruined when it rejected free love.” These words have a great relevance to the rest of the film, presenting that as the 1960s sexual revolution continues to expand, the major governments of the world refuse to grow and adapt with them, requiring an almost militaristic assault on the conservatism in the system.

This becomes even clearer towards the end of Milena’s storyline in which she meets and becomes attracted to the Russian (Communist) ice skater Vladimir who shows very little interest in his sexuality, but instead, spends most of his time talking about the great things Communist Russia is doing for the world. This dichotomy is so ridiculous that Milena’s friend attempts to tease him by walking around naked in their apartment in a highly sexual manner, but Vladimir remains completely unfazed. When Milena is finally able to seduce Vladimir, he ends up brutally decapitating her with his ice skate, not so subtly presenting the idea that communism is killing any form of liberal sexuality. This connection is even more explicit in an earlier scene where Vladimir hits Milena for caressing his penis. After this attack, Makavejev cuts back to a shot of Stalin rather than Vladimir.

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However, just because Makavejev is attacking the way communism handles sexuality, that does not mean that he is celebrating capitalism’s treatment of it. Instead, mainly through the documentary footage involving Wilhelm Reich and his findings on sexual behavior, Makavejev is able to criticize the way America has handled sexually revolutionary ideas. For example the only vocal appearance of Reich (who died in 1957) is when Makavejev plays us a recording of him recalling a time his house was surrounded by an angry mob. Makavejev presents a backwards logic, as the crowd shouts, “Down with the Commies! Down with the Orggies!” to Reich. First off, Reich explains that he is the furthest thing from a communist, but more importantly, we have just seen that the “evil sexually deviant” communists like Vladimir are instead just as intent upon suppressing sexual dialogue and studies as the angry mob, even going as far as, in Makavejev’s mind, to kill others in order to “protect” it. When looking at the comments from the crowds along with those of Vladimir, we are able to see that both sides of the aisle are blaming each other for the moral degradation of their own societies, when in fact their thoughts have little to no validity. Makavejev hits this idea of repression of sexual research in America even harder when he presents how Reich was arrested, imprisoned, and had his writings burned, creating obvious parallels with Nazi book burnings.

Similar to how Makavejev’s film deals with the social revolution that coincided with the actual political revolutions at the time, Kusturica’s film Underground deals directly with these revolutions as they happened in Yugoslavia’s history through metaphors and representations while also presenting the history itself. The most apparent example of this is the film’s “underground” setting during the majority of the communist regime. As Rosalind Galt explains in her book The New European Cinema, “the film as an allegory in which Communism imprisons the innocent population in the darkness of the cellars. In this interpretation, the underground population represents the true national spirit, bravely surviving Communist oppression.” Blacky and his friends and family (the people of Yugoslavia) are tricked by Marko and Natalija (the communists) into believing a false truth that World War II has continued on into the 1960s. They are literally and figuratively been kept in the dark while Marko (communism) profits off of the manufactured weapons built by them (the people of Yugoslavia).

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The allegory is very biting and in many ways quite similar to Makavejev’s critique on communism through his Russian ice-skater. A great example of this trickery is at the beginning of the second act, when we are first shown that Blacky and the others are still down in the cellar after all these years. Marko watches them in their cellar society for a few seconds and then begins to act as though he has just survived a Gestapo attack. When Blacky asks to be able to go above ground and help with the fighting, Marko replies “Tito orders you to wait. He said to me: Give Blacky my regards and tell him not to move. He’ll be precious to me in the final battle.” Blacky does not even question the authority of their communist leader after this and, in keeping with the satirical tone of the film, eventually leads the entire underground society in a song about how great Tito is.

Another major theme in the story of Underground is the idea of fairy tales and make-believe, which is clear from the opening lines of the film, “To our fathers and children…Once upon a time, there was a country and its capital was Belgrade” all the way to the ending of the film in which the main characters, now dead, float off into eternity on piece of land in the shape of Tito’s Yugoslavia. However, this is vital to the overall impact of the film, as Kusturica makes it very clear that this is more of a fantasy film than a historical film, including recurring reminders, such as the almost magical marching band that often follow Blacky and Marko around.

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Rosalind Galt mentions this aspect of the film several times in her book The New European Cinema: Redrawing the Map. She believes Kusturica’s view is that the characters (as well as the people of Yugoslavia in general) have greatly imagined their country’s past and what they have come to accept as the “true” history is almost non-existent. For example she states, “Once upon a time is necessary in the past, and the fairy-tale genre connotes both a romanticized version of the nation and, for the listener, the nostalgically remembered world of childhood.” Therefore, it is almost as if the people of Yugoslavia have come to look at their history through the eyes of an imaginative child. They remain hidden (or underground) during all of the horrible parts of history such as the war and communism and are therefore creating a fantasy for themselves.

Similarly, unlike other retrospective films of this time like Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988), Kusturica’s film does not have early scenes of a beautiful country and peaceful times but instead starts off with the Bombing of Belgrade and ends within the midst of the Yugoslav Wars. This beginning and ending with a warring nation gives us the impression that the country never actually existed, as it was always at war. This is even more explicit with its chapter titles, “Part One: War,” “Part Two: Cold War,” and “Part Three: War.” This would therefore make Ivan’s words, “What does he mean, no Yugoslavia?” towards the end of the film even more powerful if the home he thought existed was just a fantasy within his mind.

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Although released almost twenty-five years apart, both WR: Mysteries of the Organism and Underground were initially quite controversial. Makavejev’s film was “not quite banned, but not available either in Yugoslavia for sixteen years after it was made,” according to Nina Power. Underground on the other hand was considered to have had its characters “illustrate Balkan stereotypes, and through an attribution of whom the narrative seems to blame for the war [and] suggests that it may try to blame Communism for the strife in the 1990s” according to Galt. Just the fact that the films were released to controversy presents that they were not willing to shy away from more taboo or radical ideas that were not necessarily “the norm.” Therefore, both films act as great examples that cement Yugoslavia as a massive influence in the world of film, even twenty years after its dissolution as a country.

Author: Jim Breslin is writer who has also produced several short films. He is currently a junior at DePaul University double-majoring in Digital Cinema Production and Business Marketing. He is also currently the Social Media and Marketing Intern at Facets.

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